Friday, August 13, 2010

Absent-Minded Science

We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature human-like tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this practice, made crystal clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories: physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.

However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism (though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people) but its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental/spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts, instead, to explain everything as simply matter in motion. The recent challenge to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism (from a non-religious perspective) comes from those who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.

The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific” method which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached, in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. Matter itself is completely devoid of mind, in this view—whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks and other little chunks, energy, fields, strings, or what-have-yous.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind. This problem becomes clear if we envision the ultimate constituents of matter as akin to little billiard balls. (This is not an accurate notion, even in terms of the prevailing views of matter, but it is accurate in terms of my point here). No matter how we arrange any number of the little billiard balls, the collection will never give rise to any type of mind—unless there is some type of mind contained in the little billiard balls from the get-go. And the prevailing theory of mind today denies that there is any mind at all in the little billiard balls or any of the ultimate constituents of matter.

Read the rest at the Independent.

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